Before the COVID lockdown changed our habits, I had started going to the gym almost every day. Treadmill, stepper, bike, weights, headphones on, in the moment, get it done. It felt good to be more in control of my body, to notice improved fitness and body shape, to know that if I move more and consume less I will both look and feel better.
The joy of nature
So, when the gyms closed, I was determined not to lose the fitness I’d gained. I’ve always enjoyed walking and was lucky enough to experience the delights of being in nature from a very young age. As a child I walked the north coast and glens of Antrim, the Sperrins and the Mountains of Mourne, Donegal, Connemara and County Kerry on the west coast of Ireland. Later, I spent holidays hiking through the stunning scenery of the Derbyshire Peak District, the Lake District, the wilds of Scotland and the Massif Central in France.
When I reached crisis point, seven years ago, I went on a pilgrimage and walked my way out of depression and grief, one hundred and fifty-two kilometres of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the Way of St James, across Northern Spain. It was a life-changing experience.
At the end of a particularly glorious day tramping along the highways and byways of Galicia I wrote this short verse. You can also find it in Transformation, a collection of poems, and at the end of Chapter 17, Finding the Way, in my book Changing Lightbulbs: A journey through anxiety and depression, available in print through Amazon and other online retailers, as an e-book and on Kindle.
Camino A new day dawns, bringing inspiration Can I make it happen, this transformation? Stopped by a stream, gentle and cool Aching feet bathed in a sacred pool. Gentle Hans with his arm in a sling Spoke of his life, made my heart sing. Walked with my friend, talked for a while Our hearts united, she makes me smile. My muscles are aching, my ligaments torn But my spirit soars, I am reborn.
Finding the beauty close to home
In the years since then I hadn’t stopped walking, but I wasn’t doing it regularly enough. This year, as social distancing became our new normal, I began to walk with more purpose, with greater intent, every day, for up to two hours.
Along the coast, through the bush, into the woods, around lakes, by the river. And sometimes just through ordinary suburban streets.
And something strange and rather beautiful began to happen. As I walked, everything became heightened. My daily walk took on an almost spiritual dimension, became a time to lose myself in nature, in the beauty that is so close to home but which I had perhaps come to take too much for granted.
I’ve always appreciated the benefits of walking, not just for physical health but for mental and emotional well-being. I knew all this on a deep subconscious level, but I hadn’t been doing it enough, I hadn’t made it a habit.
As I walked each day, I started to notice more, to pay closer attention. I watched the ever-changing cloud shapes as they shifted from moment to moment. I noticed the intensity of the searing blue sky. I gazed in awe as the surfers and kite-surfers communed with the elements. I was enchanted by the slowly changing light at the close of day. I was transfixed by the first star appearing against a burnt orange horizon dotted with ships coming and going, off to some far-flung land or approaching their destination in the port of Fremantle. I felt part of something bigger than I could ever begin to comprehend.
I saw the houses I’d passed by many times before through fresh eyes. I noticed the architecture, the shapes and colours, the front lawns, the native plants. I felt the wind in my hair, the sun on my skin, the fresh rain on my face as a storm approached. I noticed fifty shades of autumn as the leaves turned from green to yellow, gold and red.
The long and winding road
The gyms may soon open up again. I’m sure I’ll go back, but I’ll keep walking. It has become the highlight of my day, a wind down after work, a time to both move and pause at the same time. To be still even while putting one foot in front of the other.
It’s that simple. Put one foot in front of the other, then do it again, and again. Become lost in thoughts and reflections, or even better, think of nothing at all. That’s a blissful thing when it happens, a sensation of pure consciousness, at one with the universe, if only for a fleeting moment.
Demons may still lurk, the mind may still race, thoughts may still swirl, but walking and nature will always be there to quell the torment and soothe the soul.
I look forward to the day when I can return to the network of pathways that crisscross Europe, in particular France, Spain and Italy. I miss the carefree promise of travel to those lands so close to my heart. The section of the Camino between Le Puy and Conques has been on my radar for a while now.
In the meantime, there is still much more to explore close to home. I will continue to walk as far and as often as I can, along wide open or long and winding roads, right here, right now. Who knows where they will lead me?
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